Secluded With the Cowboy Online - Cassie Miles

Chapter One

The small, filthy window beside the locked door allowed a glimpse of fading sunlight. It was the seventh day of her captivity. Nicole Carlisle lay curled up on a bare mattress in the root cellar, staring at the shred of light and shivering in the cold winter air that seeped through the concrete walls. Soon it would snow. They’d have a white Christmas at the ranch.

A sob wrenched through her. The holidays were supposed to be about hope and love. All she had was despair.

Her wrists were fastened in front of her with padded handcuffs that weren’t supposed to leave marks. But she’d struggled against the restraints until her forearms were black and blue. That pain blended with many others. Her head throbbed. Her joints were stiff.

Though her legs were unfettered, a length of steel chain fastened with a lock around her waist kept her tethered to an open beam in the ceiling. She could move from the stained, disgusting mattress to the plastic bucket she used as a toilet to the gallon jug of water her kidnapper had so thoughtfully left behind so she wouldn’t die from dehydration. Death would have been too easy. The chain leash wasn’t long enough for her to reach the rough wooden shelves at the back of the root cellar where Mason jars of preserved peaches, pears, relishes and salsa were stored.

She’d tried to reach those shelves, stretched her legs as far as she could, tried to maneuver the mattress. No luck.

Feeding times were sporadic and unpredictable. Sometimes, he came twice a day with sandwiches and fruit. Today he had appeared once to check on her but hadn’t brought food.

Her stomach groaned. I won’t beg for food.

She’d given up on talking to him. He was deaf to reason. And her threats rang hollow. Nobody was looking for her. Not anymore. Not since she’d been forced to tell her husband that she was safe, that he should call off the search. She’d told him that she was never coming home.

She remembered the pain in Dylan’s eyes. They were going through a rough patch in their marriage, and he had believed her when she said she wanted a divorce. Dammit, he should have known better. He should have known that she was being coerced.

Three days ago she’d been escorted to her meeting with Dylan by two armed men on horseback. They flanked her as they rode to the creek on Carlisle property. After being held captive, the fresh air and moonlight had been intoxicating. The mountain breeze caressed her cheeks, and she almost began to hope that her ordeal was over. When Dylan rode toward her, looking every inch the cowboy, her heart nearly exploded with longing. It had taken every ounce of self-control to keep herself from leaping into his arms.

But she knew that two rifles were cocked and aimed at her and Dylan. A tiny microphone in her collar broadcast her words to the kidnappers. If she’d deviated from the script, they would both have been killed. She had no other choice but to tell him that their five-year marriage was over.

He’d turned his back. Accepted her at her word.

And she’d been dragged away, transferred from one miserable dungeon to another. This root cellar was the worst. The dank cold permeated her bones. At night the darkness blinded her. Rows of shelves packed with food mocked her hunger.

Overhead, she heard someone walking across the floor. Pipes rattled as the toilet flushed. She’d give a year of her life for the chance to use a bathroom. To take a shower and wash the grit from her blond hair would be pure heaven.

During the first three days after her kidnapping, she’d been allowed to wash up in a basin, to brush her teeth and comb her hair. He’d given her clean clothing so she’d look okay in videos he shot to prove she was still alive. Now that no one was searching, the kidnapper didn’t bother to provide her with creature comforts.

Not that Nicole had ever been interested in makeup, powder and perfume. She was a rancher’s wife, a veterinarian who didn’t require pampering. But she’d always kept herself clean. The stink of her own body humiliated her.

The footsteps crossed the house above her. Though she didn’t know the upstairs floorplan, she could tell when he reached the kitchen, which was directly overhead.

Was he bringing her food? Anticipation raced through her, and she hated herself for being excited. She should be stronger. A day without food